Friday, February 13, 2004

 

I know Alice Jones not through the literary world, but the political one – among the progressive scene of the San Francisco Bay Area, especially the left medical & therapeutic communities, she & I have several friends in common. Indeed, I met Jones well before I knew that she wrote & before she published her first collection, The Knot, after winning a contest with Alice James Books back in1992. At the time, my sense was that Alice was a competent poet very much into the hyper-personal side of the School of Quietude – a far less obnoxious subset of that world than some, but not especially my own cup of tea. As time went by, Jones went on to publish a long poetic suite, Isthmus, which won a Jane Kenyon award & was likewise published by Alice James; Anatomy, a fine press chapbook from Bullnettle Press; & Extreme Directions: The 54 Moves of Tai Chi Sword, from Omnidawn. One glance at Extreme Directions, had I done so at the time, would have suggested that Jones had been evolving into a more complex kind of writer. Indeed, along the way, she co-founded Apogee Press, whose list contains many poets I wouldn’t characterize as School of Quietude in the slightest –

 

·         Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

·         Kathleen Fraser

·         Pattie McCarthy

·         Elizabeth Robinson

·         Edward Smallfield

·         Cole Swenson

– tho you will find Edward Kleinschmidt Mayes and Valerie Coulton there as well, as if just to verify that my first take wasn’t entirely an hallucination.

 

Now, however, I’m holding Gorgeous Mourning in my hands, Alice Jones’ newest volume just out from Apogee. This book frankly is a revelation. It’s a sequence of 72 prose poems, ranging in length from short to very very short, that are as tightly composed as anything I’ve read in ages. While some retain a vestige of narrative lyric, they do so with a tautness & precision so exact as to border on the impossible, such as “Bristle”:

 

In the car, she reached over to stroke his thigh, he pulled away. The radio was saying “Skirmishes broke out along the border” and he wanted to argue causes, economy or culture. She thought of the Dalai Lama’s one naked shoulder, a life of feeling the wind in an armpit, exile.

 

One can certainly build a narrative out of these three simple enough elements, but even if one hears the second & third meanings within, say, border, the leap from thigh to shoulder & armpit is such a bold sideways stroke as to give this piece a depth & resonance it could not carry simply as “tale.” The final exile rings all that much more loudly for it.

 

Some of the poems here flirt with the new sentence, such as “Circle,” but my favorites are those that hold onto just enough of their traditional frameworks to empower the shifts within a disruptive as well as connective function, particularly when Jones lets her ear drive the forward logic of the writing. A good example is how “Reply” takes off from the mode of the letter:

 

Dear one, remember our moon-set walk across the trestle bridge, trees full of parasitic mistletoe? Are you still eating beef tendon and gristle soup with noodles? My unattended yard now blooms with purple thistles. They fire guided missiles from the mainland, pointed like flying fish, landing with a piscatory splash off-shore. Piss-poor shots, I’d say. The pistil is to stamen as mortar is to pestle, as heart is to well-aimed pistol, as I am to your epistle. Missing you, yours.

 

Read that aloud a few times. The stl combination occurs eight times in 80 words, not counting how it crosses the line with the combination from such outliers as piscatory & Piss-poor (let alone parasitic, purple, pointed). This poem is a feast for the ludic ear.

 

There are times, & this would seem to be one of them, when a poet so transcends the roots of whichever tradition they chose, that any reader has to acknowledge that they’ve arrived as a major writer whatever their aesthetic stripe. I might place Alice Jones alongside the likes, say, of Robert Hass, Annie Finch, Thom Gunn, Susan Stewart or Wendell Berry, all superb poets who come unapologetically out of poetry’s conservative traditions, but I do so knowing that this is very rare company indeed.



Thursday, February 12, 2004

 

Some bloggers can be more than a little cryptic. Michael Helsem, possibly better known as graywyvern or xvarenah, (tho under his own name he has an interesting little site on tanka that starts off with a quotation from Rae Armantrout) mentions The Saragossa Manuscript in a recent entry. But that’s all he does, save for a link first to a review in the Brightlights Film Journal, then a second link to a class on the film from a Slavic Studies course at Rice University. This latter link is tucked under the word “More.” “More” is not what I would call a fulsome discussion.

 

That reminds me of a story. In fact, everything in Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie reminds somebody of a story, which they’re only too happy to tell. The Brightlights review has a subhead that characterizes the film as a “legendary head flick from the ‘60s,” one of those grossly unfair shorthand gestures that isn’t entirely wrong. Made in 1965 in Poland by the director Wojciech Has & starring Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish equivalent of James Dean, not as the moody star he was in Ashes & Diamonds, but instead as a comic bungler, the film adapts what I’ve heard characterized as “the Polish national epic.” The novel, written by Jan Potocki at roughly the same moment in history when Wordsworth was penning The Prelude, was, however, written originally in French & its action takes place entirely in Spain. This, as it turns out, is typical.

 

Set during the Inquisition, the story begins when two soldiers put down their swords in the middle of a duel to examine a giant book in the room they happen to fighting in. One recognizes that it accounts the tale of one of his ancestors, Alfonse Von Worden, a captain in the Guards who was ordered to report to duty in Madrid, but had to pass through Sierra Morena, a mountainous regional along the Portuguese border rumored to have gypsies, kabbalists, Moors, bandits & other sorts whom a young officer in the Guards would be well advised to avoid. Needless to say, Von Worden has adventures that involve all of the above, but most importantly, virtually everyone he meets – my favorite is the possessed sheepherder Pacheco – first has to tell their story. Often, somebody within their story must tell their own as well. And somebody within that tale must tell theirs. And and and. At one point, I think that viewers of this film must be nine layers down into the tales – and one never does get back to the original duelists. Magic, heresy & incest are all suggested, along with some stereotypes of people – especially Muslims – that are wild even by today’s post-911 xenophobia. All of this filmed in a shadowy black & white with a haunting – well-chosen adjective – electronic score by Krzysztof Penderecki, largely unknown in the west at the time.

 

The film is pure narrative, but a narrative devoted to its devices & adamantly not going anywhere It’s the closest thing cinematically to the experience of a Thomas Pynchon novel – all it needs is a talking electronic duck. Back in the 1960s & early ‘70s, it was regular fare at the Cedar Alley Cinema in San Francisco. This was a cheapie art theater right along the border between Polk Gulch & the Tenderloin. There was a great fish & chips joint half a block up & directly across the alley was the unlabeled back entrance of the Edinburgh Castle, in those days very possibly the most colorful tavern in a city that took the color of its taverns very seriously. The pub had a parrot, Winston, whose vocabulary as I recall it was mostly obscene. A giant caber adorned one wall & periodically the local alumni group of the RAF would meet in one of the rooms upstairs.

 

The cinema, which was tiny & funky, with the requisite uncomfortable chairs that made sitting through a two-hour movie an ordeal, was also immediately next door to a fire house. At randomly spaced moments – always the worst possible ones – the entire theater would be filled for a few minutes with bells & sirens, then curiously quiet again even if mayhem was taking place onscreen.

 

I must have seen The Saragossa Manuscript ten times during those years. If, in fact, cinema is where narrative has fled from the printed page, this film that strives for what Viktor Shlovsky would call “plotless prose” – because it is all plot – is some kind of apotheosis. If Stan Brakhage & Michael Snow showed what cinema could be sans all those devices, Has’ film reverses the lesson. I never tired of watching its leisurely excursions into the absurd, especially when subplots would come together – just often enough to taunt the audience with possibilities of closure.

 

Indeed, Saragossa Manuscript is one of only two motion pictures that I have ever bought for myself on DVD*. I did this almost instinctively the instant I found it – I hadn’t seen the film in almost 30 years & had feared that it was lost. Fortunately for me, the film had other serious fans, one of whom, Jerry Garcia, arranged with the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley to rescue it in a viewable form, with the sole condition that he be allowed to view it whenever he wished. Unfortunately, the Grateful Dead guitarist died before the project was completed, so the Archives turned to another serious fan, Martin Scorsese, to underwrite the remaining preservation costs.

 

The film stands up some 30 years later – in fact, I think I got much more out of it watching The Saragossa Manuscript now than I did when I was a kid, since I have a much better grasp not only about its historic period, but also with what it’s trying to do as a film. Back in the 1960s, I would simply go to a film such as, say, The Red Desert, to watch the ship pass slowly behind the window of the little shed on the pier & to see the room turn subtly to pink after Richard Harris & Monica Vitti have their tryst, but with no real sense of why or how those details were important – let alone why they moved me so, especially the boat** – whereas now I can see them in a far richer context.

 

So it made my heart skip to see Michael Helsem link to this wonderful, but almost secret motion picture. But, Michael, say a little more.

 

 

 

* The other is the documentary Don’t Look Back about Bob Dylan, although I haven’t watched it in the year since I got it – it’s still got the cellophane wrap on the box.

 

** I swear that that ship may be responsible for my writing longer poems. It made me realize, as did the Edith Piaf record in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, that the single most important aesthetic effect was the ability to slow down time. I have spent my entire life attempting to arrive at such moments with words.



Wednesday, February 11, 2004

 

Ask any reader familiar with contemporary U.S. poetry which writer might be most likely to appropriate the title of the tune “ChoCho Ch’Boogie” for a poem that would include the following lines –

 

     The rink around the

posing is closed for retrofitting.

 

                                                Refurbishment

is just around the hospital coroner.

 

– & a substantially decent percentage would point directly & correctly to Charles Bernstein as the most likely culprit. And right they would be. No other poet in my generation – Bernstein is five years younger, but reading him brings out the boy in me – has a more instantly identifiable style, one part shtick, one part brooding (but giggly) social analysis.

 

Bernstein’s flare is evident everywhere in World on Fire, a slim but significant chapbook published by Meredith Quartermain’s Nomados Press of Vancouver. In a reading in the garden at Kelly Writers House last September, Bernstein indicated that these eleven poems – every one of which can be heard & downloaded from the website linked at the top of this paragraph – were conceived in fact as a sequence. Given the title & Bernstein’s lifelong devotion to the isle of his birth, Manhattan, one might read this as his response to the events of September 11 & possibly it is. Unlike, say, Michael Gottlieb’s “The Dust, however, World on Fire can’t be filtered via close reading the way human remains might be sifted from the debris that now populates the Fresh Kills* landfill site on Staten Island.

 

Maybe it is, but if so, Bernstein’s not letting on. Indirection is almost a religious principle in his work. Yet, in fact, these works, which so often are composed out of found language & devolved ad slogans –

 

It’s still the same old lorry.

 

                                     Astronaut
meets Mini-Me in a test tube in
Rome,

Regis spurns Veronica, Merv buys casino,
goes to another season, but in the
previous year

 

– and which are so easily taken by casual, if not outright careless, readers as if they were a literary Rorschach,  seem to resolve inescapably to schematic frames that signal the autumn of 2001. Here is the whole of “Ghost of a Chance”:

 

The silent ending came as fast as the
cold click of a Berreta. In those years,
before the war, it was the custom. An
entry point could always be found – a ways
down the road, hidden by the side of a
steel-gray tool shed, or in warehouses near
the waterfront. The days always went like
that. And if the money was in the wrong
horse race at least it would be kept quiet,
for a while. The perfume smell was all but
unendurable, when the door opened
and the room flooded with neon and ice-
cold air. Behind the camera the men
joked about the almost bitter coffee.
 

At one level this reads not unlike a lyric as abstract as anything John Ashbery ever crafted. Yet that is only one level & what rises up from Bernstein’s bleaker humor is an infinitely darker vision. In fact, Ashbery isn’t the right point of comparison for Bernstein’s work – he never really has been. The poet among the New Americans who is closest to Bernstein, as a writer, scene maker & in terms of personal vision, is Allen Ginsberg.

 

I remember once a couple of decades ago going to hear Allen in some large auditorium setting. Although Ginsberg did read ”Howl” almost as an encore that night, his focus was on the then-most-recent short sharp satirical lyrics, often accompanying himself on the harmonium. My own feeling at the time was some sort of radical despair – the creator of some of the most majestic & perceptively detailed poems of the past 50 years – not just “Howl,” but even more so “Wichita Vortex Sutra” – appeared to have been swallowed alive by a comic clown, performing agitprop with the tones of a mantra. Whom bomb indeed!

 

Later, tho, I found myself rereading the works I’d come to love in Ginsberg & increasingly recognizing that the same satirical impulse – which is a profoundly political stance – lurked just beneath the surface, even in “Sutra” & “Howl.” If anything, Ginsberg was increasingly becoming himself as he wrote, worrying less & less about “would this work be accepted” than he had in his anxious early years. Kaddish has always struck me as an exceptionally anxious book, for example – Ginsberg there is trying (not successfully, actually) to find a middle ground between the satiric commentator & the more orphic Whitmanesque bard who had suddenly become internationally famous. As time evolved, tho, the either/or problem more or less dissolved. Ginsberg was free to be what he wanted & it’s interesting to see what he chose.

 

Bernstein’s book looks like a simple enough chapbook of witty lyrics, complete with the signature Susan Bee painting on the cover**. Yet underneath the wry twists, the noir humor, this is in fact a deeply politicized response to the defining event of his city. As the poem “Broken English” asks five separate times in its 27 lines, What are you fighting for?

 

It’s not a joke.

 

 

 

* Bizarre as that name might seem as the repository for debris from the World Trade Center attack, the word kills means river in Dutch.

 

** Seemingly a man & woman at a window, contemplating whether or not to jump.



Tuesday, February 10, 2004

 
My blogroll passed the 250 mark tonight. I'm sure that some of these are dormant or worse & not every one is strictly about poetics. But virtually all are "like-minded" by some definition.


 

Pound for me was always the beginning. By that I don't mean that he was the greatest -- I'm reasonably sure I don't believe in such a thing -- but that if I were to draw a spatial map of poetry, rather like the one suggested by Jack Spicer in his famous Magic Workshop questionnaire, Pound would sit at the center, like the sun in a Ptolemaic universe. More than any other poet, he is the one in which you can see & hear -- especially hear -- contemporary poetry emerge from its Victorian roots. The new Library of America Poems & Translations is a great gathering of Pound the Victorian, The Cantos are Pound the Modern. The Pisan Cantos are very nearly Pound, our contemporary. It's not the same, say, for Williams, whose early Keatsian work reads like the juvenilia it is. And virtually every other poet sits cleanly on one side of the line or the other: Frost on the before, Hart Crane on the after, Stein definitely on the after & so forth.

 

Plus Pound knew everyone. He's the Grand Central Station of poetry. More than any other poet, before or since, Pound understood the role of social organization, of simply putting X in touch with Y. His correspondence, which I once read unedited from beginning to end in microfiche while at UC Berkeley, is full of the bluster & nonsense everyone associates with his prose, especially when he's discussing something he's pretty sure he doesn't really know (that's when the Ol' Possum & Uncle Ez crap really gets thick), but underneath is that constant connecting, connecting, connecting. Just as everyone can play the Kevin Bacon game*, just as so many mathematicians have their Erdös number, based upon how many articles they co-wrote with the famous homeless genius, everybody in poetry can be connected to Pound, and thus through Pound, in some fashion. That's how you connect Alfred Starr Hamilton with Andrew Motion with Cesar Vallejo with kari edwards. As in Ron Silliman studied with Robert Grenier who studied with Robert Lowell whom Pound once praised, however foolishly. Or Silliman knew Robert Creeley who knew Charles Olson who visited Pound often at St. Elizabeth's. Or or or. What is your Pound number?

 

I first read The Cantos when I was 19 & 20 -- there was a period there when I was reading the Van Buren Cantos & The Lord of the Rings simultaneously. I'd come to The Cantos after having read The New American Poetry, but not by a lot, no more than 18 months. It obviously made an impression on me -- I even wrote to Pound, telling him how to conclude the work.**

 

At some point early on, I decided that I need a reasonably complete poetry library, at whose center Pound sat. Which meant as I began to fill in the library that I needed/wanted those books that connected his world up with present day poetry. That is a particular path, by no means the only way to track the course of time & history in poetry, but it seemed a fundamentally useful approach to me. And that meant, for example, that even if I didn't instinctively connect with the Objectivists at first, or at least with some of them, that I still felt I needed to go out & get the books &, even more, to read them. I'd already read & liked Zukofsky, but the book that really extended my appreciation beyond just his work was a chapbook published by Cleveland poet Ron Caplan -- I think that was the name -- a reissue of Discrete Series, George Oppen's first book (& still my favorite of his works). I very quickly got copies of the later books, acquiring This in Which via a five-finger discount at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee bookstore, because I didn't have the money for the book & couldn't imagine, having just seen it for the first time, not having it immediately & forever.

 

If you'd asked me at the time -- say 1968 or thereabouts -- I would have said that the Objectivists were important for connecting Pound & Williams to the present, especially to Olson, Creeley & the projectivists. But in reality, I think that reading these works in the other direct proved to be at least as important. I knew, for example, that Olson's best poetry was extraordinary, Creeley's likewise, and I felt the same with regard to Pound & Williams. But now I had a sense of how these two parts of the universe fit together -- my sense of the shape of American poetry was no longer discontinuous, this book & this book & this book.

 

That sense of continuity is important. It began to enable me to absorb more & more of my reading into an ever-evolving sense of American poetry as a thing in itself. Sense in the previous sentence is a deliberately more abstract term than, say, shape, because the way things "fit" don't always strike me as having a spatial metaphor (e.g., how Annie Finch's ear could be traced to Robert Duncan in one direction, to Lee Ann Brown in another, even as she herself comes out of a tradition quite different from [& often opposed to] either). Yet one of the questions I find myself always asking when I come across something new is "how does this fit?" Because it does, invariably, somewhere, somehow. And, also invariably, changes the shape of things as it does.

 

I don't think Pound, per se, is absolutely necessary to this approach to reading -- Cary Nelson's great achievement in Repression & Recovery is that he does much the same thing starting from a most counterintuitive part of the terrain, leftist doggerel. But I do think that Pound is the easiest place for a young person to begin, more so than any of his peers, more so than any single poet who has come after. And I do think that one of the advantages that poets attracted to Pound's Cantos have had over the past 50 years is just that -- they have an easier tasking putting together their sense of how poetry in the world comes together. If you started with, say, Richard Wilbur, you would have to figure out (a) how & why the old formalism stopped so abruptly***, (b) how & why it began again & (c) how it relates back to non-formalist poetries. Eventually that gets you to Pound again, but the process is more circuitous & I'm not sure that's of any intellectual value to a young writer, as such.

 

In contrast, I have never felt any difficulty building backward, say, from Pound. Or toward "anti-Poundian" writing. Pound's is the poetry that seems to me to lead most easily to Milton & Chaucer & to The Prelude as well as to those European modernists who were very much his antithesis.

 

My non-fiction or theoretical reading, by contrast, has never had a figure who played such a connective role. The closest might be Walter Benjamin, or more likely some conjunction of him, Wittgenstein & Marx. But I've gone through periods where I read a lot of theory & others where I read very little. Right now, other than Watten's Constructivist Moment, I'm not reading a lot. Rather, my weblog has made me conscious of the degree to which American poetry has moved on since the 1980s, say, and that there is a map of younger writers waiting to be painted. So I've dramatically increased the amount of reading I'm doing of work by younger -- by which I mostly mean under 40 -- poets. Which has been great for me -- I've discovered people like Tsering Wangmo Dhompa or Graham Foust or nearly one hundred other poets, who are completely new to me & doing interesting, often fabulous work. So this is the part of the library that right now I'm most interested in building, in working on.

 

But another way that this question might asked, or answered, is which reading, non-poetry wise, has proven of the greatest value. In part, the answer is obviously all of the above, but the other part is that the reading I've done that has proven of greatest value, from the perspective of my own poetry, falls into a few specific categories:

 

(1)         Linguistics: especially the writings of Saussure, Roman Jakobson (Six Essays on Sound & Meaning is criminally out of print, but it's the most important work), George Lakoff & the current generation of cognitive linguistics. From the perspective of poetic practice, tho, Chomsky's work was a giant waste of time. From my perspective, Wittgenstein & the analytic philosophers fit here.

(2)         Western Marxism: all of it, for its variants & connections, from Sartre & Gramsci & Kautsky, to the early books of Fred Jameson & Perry Anderson. The Frankfort School is key here, tho I disagree with most of its adherents -- Adorno's aesthetics are really bad. Althusser is another one of those people who needs to be read just so you can argue with him -- he does have the one reasonable definition of ideology, but his version of Capital is the worst sort of economic determinism. For me, coming out of this reading, the whole history of continental philosophy & that version of postmodernism, makes a kind of sense it never would have without the necessary background.

(3)         Discourses ancillary to poetry: art criticism, music theory, anthropology -- fields that enable me to look at my practice with a different perspective. Barrett Watten has written of how Lucy Lippard's Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object was critical to my development as a poet, & basically he's right about that. I could stick Wittgenstein & Quine et al here also.

 

If you were to catalog my house by shelf space, you would find roughly 36 shelves devoted to poetry (plus another dozen or so "mounds"), a dozen shelves devoted to non-fiction -- a ratio that is misleading given how slender so many important books of poetry have been (so that there may be a 25 to 30 to 1 ratio in actual number of books) -- and, if you look at a single bookcase next to the furnace room, a little over six shelves devoted to fiction. If I go hot/cold when it comes to reading theory & nonfiction, I've been a far more steady reader of novels (and maybe once a year a collection of short stories). Steady but slow -- it's my bedtime reading or for those rare occasions when I decide to soak in the tub. I began to think about fiction seriously when I was in college & specifically when I began to think of the prose poem -- at that time I was focused almost exclusively on Moby Dick, Ulysses & three or so of Faulkner's novels, all works in which the role of the sentence is particularly powerful & important. My reading here is far less systematic -- I'm slowly making my way through Proust, one volume every year or so, reading W.G. Sebald (at Gil Ott's insistence), David Markson, some of the Phillip K. Dick reissues that have shown up of late. And a fair number of the ones I complete I don't bother to save -- I'm never going to read those Robert Parker "Spenser novels" again, even the ones I liked.

 

 

 

 

* As in "Charles Bernstein was in Finding Forrester (2000) with Sean Connery. Sean Connery was in The Dream Factory (1975) with Eli Wallach. Eli Wallach was in Mystic River (2003) with Kevin Bacon." Or "Kathy Acker was in The Golden Boat ?(1990) with Jim Jarmusch. Jim Jarmusch was in The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera (1996) with Tim Robbins. Tim Robbins was in Mystic River (2003) with Kevin Bacon." Both taken from The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia. Everyone is connected to Kevin Bacon. My sons go to school with Hannah Pilkes, who is in The Woodsman with Kevin Bacon.

 

** With a high contrast photo of the Hong Kong harbor, ancient rattletrap Chinese junks alongside giant cargo ships, all functionally in silhouette. I saw The Cantos as moving not just toward ideogram, but toward image as such. I have no idea if Pound ever got the letter; I never got a reply.

 

*** There were virtually no major formalists born in the 1930s, which accounts for the gap betwixt "old" & "new."



Monday, February 09, 2004

 

Lawrence Rozanski, who is a student at Villanova just down the road, sent me an email that really made me stop and think. Here’s his message:

 

Mr. Silliman,

 

I read your blog almost everyday and, in addition to your own writing, I'm often struck by the frequency with which things arrive for you in the mail, or the ease with which you'll refer to grabbing a title off a stack of unread books. I remember you going into some detail about the system you've worked out for reading several posts back — I think it had something to do with different shelves in different locations around your house? — but I don't ever recall you commenting at length on the nature and enterprise of actually acquiring your collection, and I was hoping that you might consider on this topic, both in terms of how it has applied to your education and on going work as a poet, as well as how it has shaped, informed, dictated, over-determined, etc. your practices and habits as a reader. Speaking from personal experience, I've found that the practice of writing has always been, at least for me, predicated on a set of answers to what I'll call the "question of reading," with writing qua writing drawing its sense of distinction and, most crucially, gaining its entrée into relevant discourses, under the aegis of one's rather banal choices as a reader — where to shop, what to shop for, what to pass over, how to go about reading, what ends one envisions as the appropriate outcomes of reading, the place one reserves for the practice of reading in the course of a daily or weekly routine, etc. Granted, one way of answering these questions is to retreat into the unrevealingly banal ("I like to do all my shopping at X," or "Such-and-such press's catalog is the best place to look for material on Y."), but if we can push past the temptation to simply recite our specific habits and, instead, try to arrive at some understanding of how these habits matter, I think you arrive at a very interesting (and often neglected) question in modern poetics.

 

Anyway, if you can find the time or inclination, consider talking a little about this on your blog. I'd be very interested in anything you had to say.

 

Lawrence Rozanski

 

There are really two, or maybe three, questions here, all interesting to think about. One has to do with the creation, shaping & upkeep of a poet’s library, a second – really where I think Rozanski is going with this – is a question of the relation of reading’s narrative to one’s mental map of The Territory, whatever it might be, of what poetry has been, is (&, by implication at least, should or could be), and of how a poet might govern that, to the degree that it’s possible.

 

More than 35 years ago, I was surprised to discover, when visiting the home of a School of Quietude poet with whom I was then friendly (& whose early books, in particular, I’m still fond of, tho we’ve long since lost touch), only to discover that he owned almost no books. “I don’t keep them,” he told me, tho he did in fact appear to be a steady enough reader. The man was then employed in an MFA program at one of those state universities that sprung up like weeds during the GI-bill funded 1950s, especially out west where new metropolitan areas were expanding rapidly.* At the time, I wondered how, if he passed on or discarded everything he read, his own children could ever stumble across some serendipitous find that would shape or change their lives. That seemed to me surreal since at least one of my motivations for writing poetry was to propel myself as far, culturally & intellectually, from the book-starved environment of my own childhood as I could imagine.

 

My own “system,” as Rozanski generously characterizes it, really amounts to mounds & piles & some bookcases that are, at least modestly, divided into categories (poetry, nonfiction, unread & fiction are the four main groupings). But how did I get to this particular set of books & what does it mean (e.g., the nonfiction books – really mostly theory, history, science, philosophy & art books – are up in the bookcases in the living room upstairs because they tend to be published by university or trade publishers & thus “look presentable” when the neighbors drop by, or least according to Krishna’s eye, contrasted with anarchic welter of papers that is any poetry collection that is dominated by small press books, chapbooks & publications that can strive toward chapbookdom)? Just how many of these “books” are little more than stapled collections of typewriter paper (regular or legal sized)? Some of which – say, Robert Kelly’s Axon Dendron Tree, whose top staple I have to push back in every time I open it, or Blaise Cendrar’s Kodak – are among the most influential in my library.

 

Which points right away to a major difference between a poetry collection & most other collections of literature. A significant portion of any good poetry library is going to consist of ragtag volumes from “micropublishers,” material that floats well under the radar even of SPD. I think of how Anselm Hollo has spoken of his days working for the BBC in London in the 1950s when it was, he alleges, possible to obtain virtually any small press book that was brought out in the United States & how radically different today’s circumstance is for any young writer. For one thing, there are so many more volumes now – I receive as many as 20 books in the mail each week & I still spend over $1,000 per year (sometimes double that) to ensure that I have the books I actually think I need. And while I used to “trim” my collection periodically when I lived in Berkeley, land of used bookstores, I haven’t done a “used book dump” in the nearly nine years I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, in good part because I have spent so much money in recent years buying books that I had previously owned & once thought I no longer needed (e.g., where are my Frank Samperi volumes? If I need them again, I’ll have to buy them at rare book prices. I spent far too much money this past year reacquiring many of the books of Harold Dull under just such circumstances.).

 

But I was lucky. Unbelievably so. My family settled in the Berkeley area in the 19th century, when the University of California (UC) was a relatively rural campus. The fact that the only books in my own house were the occasional Readers Digest condensed novels – invariably three to a volume – plus The Book of Knowledge, a low-end encyclopedia my mother had purchased out of some sense of my brother & I needing access to information, was not the sort of handicap that it might have been had I grown up, for example, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, or out in Lodi where my grandfather’s brother had become the mayor. While Albany – the particular Berkeley suburb I grew up in – was part of the intense economic segregation of the East Bay in the 1950s, meaning that no UC faculty would have been caught dead living in what was then a rabid center for John Birch-style rightwing politics, there were quite a few UC administrative staff living there who didn’t have the economic means of the faculty but who were, in their own ways, intellectuals. They could afford the smaller homes of petit-bourgeois Albany more easily than Berkeley & more than a couple of like-minded folks ended up teaching in the Albany school system. I had a student teacher, Ken Davids, when I was a senior who (a) published a novel with Grove Press & (b) was then married to fine press printer Betsy Davids. I had a ninth-grade soc teacher, Phil Elwood, who had had a jazz program on Pacifica radio for decades. One girlfriend were the daughter of UC staff.

 

The town library was an important institution in my growing up. From my mother’s perspective, anything that separated my brother and I from my often-psychotic grandmother on the weekends was a resource to grab onto, especially given the 1100 square feet that the three generations shared under one roof in our house. Thus bowling leagues, swimming lessons & always a few hours every Saturday at the Albany public library. I’ve written before of discovering William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music, & of coming to poetry, as a direct result.

 

However, an important part of the evolution of my library from that point forward can be traced back to the fact that I didn’t really go to college straight out of high school. Rather, I took what really amounted to a couple of years off, working part-time, taking a few classes at the local junior college, exploring the vocational possibilities of recreational pharmaceuticals in the rapidly growing East Bay market. It was during this period that I first got serious about my writing & tried to publish. It was also when I half-attended the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 – half-attended because I couldn’t afford the full admission & frankly didn’t know who all these people were. I’d never heard of Charles Olson or Jack Spicer or Robert Duncan, tho I did know enough to have heard of Ginsberg. I would hang out a lot on Telegraph Avenue, a prototype of what would now be seen as a street person, watching Kenneth Irby writing seriously into notebooks at Café Mediterranean & a friend, Davy Smith-Margen, would introduce me to some of his acquaintances, one of them a Skyline High senior by the name of Barrett Watten. Another friend from that period was Wesley Tanner, now a fine press printer in Michigan, but then a kid who was taking courses at Laney College just to learn printing.

 

It was during this period when I met Rochelle Nameroff, who became my first wife. At the time, she was a volunteer secretary for Jerry Rubin, who was planning the first anti-Vietnam teach-in in 1965. And it was Rochelle – Shelley – who convinced me to register at SF State in the writing program. She had a vision that campuses were going to be the center of sex, drugs & rock & roll – and politics – as the 1960s evolved & frankly she certainly had that right. When we got married on Halloween, 1965, I had to borrow money from Clifford Burke, poet & publisher, to pay the preacher. 

 

I see a lot of younger writers whose libraries really begin with whatever they were reading in college. By the time I really headed off to college at the age of 20, however, I was already a committed reader of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Creeley et al. & since I registered late that first semester & couldn’t get into many of the courses I sought (& was rejected by Leonard Wolf from the one writing workshop to which I’d submitted a manuscript), I had an abundance of free time & decided to literally read the SF State library American poetry collection A thru Z. I didn’t get all the way, as I recall, but I know I got as far as the many books of Tracy Thompson, the most widely published American poet of the 1960s. What I didn’t know at the time was the buyer for this section at SF State had been, more or less right up to the time when I arrived, Robin Blaser.

 

All of which is to say that by the time I reached college, I had a sense of what my reading needs were. Indeed, I picked classes by how they fit with the curriculum in my head, rather than the other way around – one major reason why I never finally finished my undergraduate degree after I switched over to Berkeley. Thus I chose a philosophy course on the grounds that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was the text, or because it used Bertrand Russell’s quirky history of philosophy. In retrospect, this could have been a dreadful way to go through school, reading so narrowly early on. Fortunately, one thing I did pick up from reading Olson & Pound was that poetry inevitably had to be situated in the world, that I needed all of these other discourses. However, even as a teenager, it was easy enough to see that a lot of Pound’s five foot bookshelf was taken up with cranks & that Olson’s own excavations into knowledge were similarly problematic. I was reading Wittgenstein before I got to college & trying to fathom Chomsky as well. But I was not systematic.

 

There were two books that I was introduced to in college – but just two – that really made a difference. One was Claude Leví-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, which I actually ran into while working as a reader for an anthro class at Merritt College. The other was Roland Barthes Writing Degree Zero, which was part of the reading list in a tentative “new theory” graduate seminar Jim Breslin taught at Berkeley that I’d talked my way into. Two books for three plus years of college was not, frankly, a great return. The value of college, for me at least, was in the people I associated with there, whether teachers (Bob Grenier most importantly, but also Richard Bridgman, Jack Gilbert, Ed van Aelstyn & a few others) or fellow students (my friendships with David Melnick, Rae Armantrout & David Bromige all started when I was at UC).

 

After college, I found myself working in the prison movement for the next five years, then working on tenant issues in San Francisco’s Tenderloin for five more. It was during this period that I began to seriously write criticism for publication – for example, what I was doing when I first edited the Margins issue on the work of Clark Coolidge. Like a lot of campus politicos who were now doing community organizing, I had begun to read left political theory, history & sociology as a means of connecting what I was doing in the community to some sense of a larger struggle. Joining the New American Movement (NAM), an organization dominated by people with virtually the same background – campus antiwar work in the 1960s, fulltime community organizing in the ‘70s – that later merged with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee (DSOC), I picked up on all the reading that passed through those circles – Fred Jameson, Stanley Aronowitz, Manuel Castells before he was writing on computing, Ernesto Laclau & Chantal Mouffe, early Terry Eagleton. These books led invariably to others – Benjamin, Marx, Adorno, Gramsci. 

 

Living with Barrett Watten on Potrero Hill in 1974 proved a pivotal experience for me in this regard. His constant questioning of all assumptions at all times forced me to demand a rigor of myself in my thinking to a degree that I’ve never experienced before or since – and rather than having two tracts of book buying, one “creative,” the other “political,” I came really to understand that they were in fact facets of a single larger discourse that if I just stood at the right angle, I could begin to glimpse the whole of.

 

That preposition seems a good place to stop for the day. Tomorrow, if I get the chance, I’ll tackle this from a different angle.

 

 

 

 

* This poet has published seven books, all with trade, university or “top tier” School of Quietude independent presses, taught at the same school for over thirty years & retired. Only two of his books remain in print. But it should be noted that he was quintessentially an MFA program creature who came of age “pre-theory” & who presumed his MFA program to be a theory-free zone. 



Sunday, February 08, 2004

 

There will be a memorial for Gil Ott at the Painted Bride, Sunday, February 22, 2004 at 2 PM. The Bride is at 230 Vine Street, near 2nd St. just north of the Old City.



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